Sunday, September 29, 2013

When Jinnah defended Bhagat Singh

While reading up on Bhagat Singh on his 106th birth anniversary, I came across an interesting article by AG Noorani on Jinnah's defence of Bhagat Singh and his opposition to the amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code empowering the court to proceed with the case even in the absence of the accused if he “has voluntarily rendered himself incapable of remaining before the court”. Jinnah was speaking in his capacity as a member of the Central Legislative Assembly, the closest thing British India had to a parliament.

In spite of obvious differences in their political ideology (Jinnah was a classic liberal who believed in constitutional methods; Singh was a communist who favoured armed struggle) Jinnah's speech was forceful and rousing. Drawing out the difference between a common criminal and someone like Singh, Jinnah said:

"Well, you know perfectly well that these men are determined to die. It is not a joke. I ask the honourable law member to realise that it is not everybody who can go on starving himself to death. Try it for a little while and you will see… The man who goes on hungerstrike has a soul. He is moved by that soul and he believes in the justice of his cause; he is not an ordinary criminal who is guilty of cold-blooded, sordid, wicked crime."

This speech was one of many which made sure that the Assembly rejected the government's proposed amendment. It was a illusory victory though. The government bypassed the Assembly altogether and introduced the amendment as an ordinance. Noorani writes:

"Having lost in the Assembly, the governor-general promulgated an ordinance, which was not subject to approval by the Assembly and expired after six months. It set up a tribunal to try the case. The entire trial was vitiated by flaws. A member of the tribunal, Justice Syed Agha Haider, was removed from the tribunal because, unlike the two European judges, he questioned the witnesses closely and repeatedly dissociated himself in writing from their orders.

The tribunal which pronounced death sentences on the accused was itself under a sentence of death. The judges lost their office after six months. The accused were largely unrepresented by counsel and there was no right of appeal. The high court bar association set up a committee to consider the validity of the ordinance. Its report on June 19, 1930, found it to be “invalid”."

The trail was described by the Supreme Court as “contrary to the fundamental doctrine of criminal jurisprudence" because there was no opportunity for the accused to even defend themselves.


Further Reading:

You can read Jinnah's speech in it's entirety here.

Even as Singh remains a minor political figure in his hometown of Lahore, a small but committed band of Pakistanis, fired by Singh's ideals, is bent on reviving his legacy by agitating to rename a chowk widely believed to mark the spot where Singh was executed.

An excellent web archive of all of Singh's work here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Journey Down Nehru-Gandhi Memory Lane

(First published on NewsYaps)

To say that the Gandhi’s are not popular on the Internet would be stating the obvious. Rahul Gandhi is probably the most ridiculed person on Twitter and every few days or so, the pappu tag starts trending as Modi supporters up the ante. His mother doesn’t get off too easily either.  I see material constantly popping up on my Facebook feed which purports to prove that Sonia Gandhi is not an Indian Citizen (or has became one illegally), that she lied about her Cambridge education (a line of attack that is also used on her son), she had KGB links, she has links to Quattrocchi and even posts which, in typical Indian fashion, make fun of the fact that she once held a job as a waitress—a    recent status by stand-up “comic” Rivaldo is: “Rupee crosses 64! Well that's what happens when an Economist takes orders from a Waitress!”

Of course, as the full page ads on Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary show, social media does not elect our rulers. Whether the twitterati like it or not, the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty is a curiously popular political force in the country.

Keeping all of this in mind, on a recent trip to Allahabad, I decided to pop into the Nehru-Gandhi's ancestral residence, Anand Bhawan, just to see where all of this began.


My adventure, though, started even before I arrived in the city. Air India uses an ancient ATR 42 propeller aircraft to cover the Delhi-Allahabad route. The plane was literally falling apart: a few of the overhead storage boxes didn’t shut and the seat I got didn’t have the pocket in front for storing books or phones or what have you. While I didn’t complain too much, another lady had a proper row over cockroaches on the flight, one of which, rather dramatically, scurried onto her food while she was eating. Shrug.

Allahabad airport is probably the smallest airport there is and just about as big as your average office. It achieves this by doing away with needless luxuries such as, er... conveyer belts. Charmingly, your luggage is brought to you by attendants on carts. An insipid sign in front of the only office proclaims, “Hindi hain hum, watan hain Hindostan Hamara” proudly declaring that the verse is by “Sir Mohammed Iqbal”. Indian transporters, it seems, have a particular fascination for this line—I’ve seen it painted on railway carriages as well.

The journey from the airport to the hotel was just as eventful, conducted as it was in an auto with an extremely odd mix of religion and sappy romance. The vehicle was plastered with golden 786’s, a large painting of the Buraq, the mythological flying horse of Islam as well as the word aashique bookended with a pair of large, pink bulbous hearts.

Allahabad is precisely the sort of place for which Indian English had to coin the word “mofussil”. Dusty, congested roads, crumbling buildings and a refreshing lack of drainage; yep, Allahabad fits the Hindi-heartland-small-town template to the hilt. In all of this dust, heat and general North Indian small town-ness, though, rise the magnificent Indo-Saracenic spires of Allahabad University. I’ve grown up in Calcutta and lived in Bombay, so when I say that this was the most amazing specimen of the architecture I’ve seen, you know it’s a big deal.  An extremely tall gothic tower next to a huge Islamicate dome flecked with the remains of blue glazed tiles, the grandeur of (the now decrepit) Allahabad University harks back to a past somewhat rosier past than the present for this city.

It was 1877 and Allahabad was sort of a boomtown. The British had just set up a new province, the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (which corresponds to modern UP) and, with it, made Allahabad its capital.  To practise in this new capital, and its new high court, arrived Nandlal Nehru, elder brother of Motilal Nehru. Academically brilliant, Motilal also set up a roaring practise as a barrister in due course of time.  In 1900, to show off his new found wealth, Motilal bought a veritable mansion in the European quarter of the city and named it Anand Bhavan. Both his son and his granddaughter grew up in this house. In the next half century or so, this house remained the hub of Indian politics given that both Motilal and his son were major Congress politicians. Fittingly, given her role in cementing the role of dynasty in Indian politics, Indira Gandhi turned Anand Bhawan into a museum to the memory of the Nehru-Gandhi’s.


Anand Bhawan is an oasis of peace in an otherwise noisy city. Primly manicured lawns house the large blue and white mansion. The structure is surrounded by a verandah which once, no doubt, had khas curtains to cool the Nehrus in the oppressive North Indian summer. Two storeys high, Anand Bhavan is topped off with a large chhatri on the terrace—a perfect spot for lounging about during the evening, I would think.

The main house has had its rooms frozen in time, and apart from the opulence, there really isn’t much to see. Nehru might or might not have been an extraordinary man, but his bedroom is rather ordinary, populated as it is with a bed (!), books and other such mundanities of daily life. The museum also takes great care to mark out parts of the house where “Gandhiji spent his evenings”, the exact spot where Feroze and Indira got married or the platform on which Nehru’s ashes were kept. It’s a testament to the Indian capacity for hero-worship that this sort of material actually makes up a whole museum. Of course, there was more to come.

The outhouse is more of a conventional museum, mostly populated with photos. A particular gem was a display of “Jawaharlal Nehru in different moods” which shows the man, as promised, in different moods: seriously walking out to bat, laughing at a joke, serenely staring into the distance and so on. There’s also a genealogical chart of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has serious potential to embarrass. Did you, for example know that Rahul has a distant aunt who is called ‘Meenu’? Or an uncle called “Chunmun”? Or that a certain Nehru-Gandhi’s first name is “Lolita”?

The museum, like every other, also has its own souvenir shop where you can buy a range of metal key-chains embossed with the faces of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Because that’s what you need to be cool: an Indira Gandhi keychain.

The only thing that actually caught my attention in the souvenir shop was a reproduction of the wedding card of Indira’s and Feroze’s wedding. It started off with an invitation in both Hindi as well as Urdu and then, interestingly, went on to describe the Hindu wedding ceremonies in great detail. Nehru, it might be noted, was against the marriage of Indira to Feroze, a Parsi born in Bombay. Personally, his objection had nothing to do with Feroze’s religion but was more to do with the fact that Feroze was, not to put too fine a point on it, a loser. He did not have a university degree, was unemployed and had no source of steady income. That said, however, Nehru was aware of the political objections such an inter-religious match could generate, given his role as India’s leading politician. Indeed, when news leaked out of the impending marriage, the backlash was furious. Many years later, Indira recalled how it seemed that “the whole country was against it” at the time. To counter this, Nehru had to issue a public statement, clarifying his stand in favour of the marriage. And to strengthen his protégé’s hand, so did Gandhi, explicitly supporting the marriage. To further lessen the fallout, the ceremony was kept unambiguously Hindu although, at the time, British Indian law did not recognize a marriage between two people of different faiths (even today, it’s extremely difficult). The wedding card it seemed, acted as an advertisement, broadcasting the Hindu-ness of the wedding. As luck would have it, many years later, this would come in handy as Maneka Gandhi challenged her mother-in-law’s status as a Hindu in court in a dispute over Sanjay Gandhi’s property. Since she had married a Parsi, Maneka argued, Indira was not a Hindu anymore. As proof of her being a Hindu, Indira’s explicitly Vedic wedding was presented as clinching evidence.

Photo montages of Nehru which much like Filmfare would carry of your reigning superstar, key chains with faces of Indira and Rajiv and genealogical charts of the whole Family, Anand Bhavan isn’t in the slightest bit apologetic about praising, what is after all only a family, to the skies. In some ways, that’s not surprising; Indians are hardly subtle when it comes to hero-worship. But it did leave me with a vague sense of unease, even foreboding, as the museum reminds us of the rather solid position dynasty has in politics and just how much power it had—and still has—over  India.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In Opposition to the Death Penalty

(First published on NewYaps a day before the four accused were sentenced to death)

As I write this, the fast track court set up to try the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape Case has found the four adult defendants guilty of rape as well as murder. Their sentence is awaited on Friday.

As all this goes on, most of India is up in arms to procure the death sentence for the accused. From placards at India Gate to rabid comment sections on websites, Indians, or at least those who are bothered enough to comment on this incident, have overwhelmingly spoken out in favour of killing the accused in return for their brutal behaviour on the night of 16 December. In fact, for some, even death is not enough; descending into a medieval eye for an eye form of justice, they demand the accused be tortured in the same way as they did Nirbhaya. I’ve even seen Afghanistan (!) and their mode of brutal, atavistic Sharia justice being held up as a model for India to follow.

All of this is in a way predictable. Our entire response to the rape has been far from enlightened. Most of the sound and fury, in the first place, was fired up by the characterisation of Nirbhaya as the “daughter of the nation” (desh ki beti), neatly slotting her into an acceptable role for a woman (other roles being ‘mother’ and, maybe, ‘wife’).  Not only that but most of the people protesting the rape have no views on, say, the mass gang rape conducted by the Indian Army in Kunan Poshpora, Kashmir or the organised state wide campaign of sexual violence carried out in Gujarat in 2002. Even opposition to something as horrible as rape is tempered by nationalistic and political considerations, it seems. Given these limitations in the reaction, the fact that most of us have a medieval urge to seek retribution (as opposed to justice) by murdering the perpetrators outright is hardly surprising. In spite of this popular support that the death penalty seems to have, the fact of the matter remains that this mode of justice is not something that should exist in any country that calls itself civilised and both morality as well as utility demand that it be removed.

Since most calls for the death penalty are always predicated on the brutality of the crime, let me start off by stating the obvious: my opposition to the death penalty does not mean I do not oppose the crime itself. What happened on the night of 16 December was and is horrible and there needs to be punishment for the perpetrators as well as justice overall. That said, however, the death penalty is not the way to do it.

The moral opposition to the death penalty is largely based on the fact that killing—any killing—is wrong. The State has no right to take what it cannot confer. And to do this in an organised way, using its full might is nothing short of barbaric. The death penalty also encourages a very grisly form of eye-for-an-eye justice that we should have done away with centuries back. If you think it’s logical for death to act as a punishment in return for murder, do you also think the State should set up a rape squad in order to rape rapists or beat people who have been convicted for assault?

The biggest moral opposition to the death penalty, though, is that our systems are imperfect and, sooner or later, you are going to kill an innocent man.  In the US itself, as per Amnesty International, 130 people sentenced to death have been found innocent since 1973; this in a rich, industrialised nation. Now imagine the number of mistakes India’s dilapidated, overworked and overburdened judicial system would make. Of course, mistakes can be made with other systems of justice as well; being imprisoned for life for a crime you did not commit is extremely bad. Unlike imprisonment, however, death is a mistake that cannot be rectified and is thus an extremely costly, unforgiveable error to make.

Moving on from out and out retribution, though, some supporters have a more refined argument: they claim that their support is based on the fact that  the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent towards future crime. This, if true, would certainly be a strong point. After all, who wouldn’t want fewer violent rapes in India? Unfortunately, it’s a big ‘if’. This conjecture, that the death penalty acts as deterrent, has no basis whatsoever in fact. The available data paints a rather different picture: the death penalty does not deter people from violent crime; the likelihood of being caught and punished does. So, if anything, better policing, not harsher sentencing acts as an effective deterrent. To quote from Amnesty International: “...research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis. The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction. The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime.”.

From a 2009 study of criminologists in the US conducted by the National Research Council, over 88% believe that the death penalty was NOT a deterrent to murder. Even more compelling data is provided by comparing murder rates in US states with and without the death penalty

As can be clearly seen, murder rates are lower in states without the death penalty, effectively destroying the death-penalty-as-a-deterrent argument.

In fact, the perpetrators in the bus that night did try to kill the victim—a crime for which most certainly there is already the death penalty. As is obvious, the threat of this maximum punishment was not an effective enough deterrent to stop them from committing their horrible crimes.

Come Friday though, most of these arguments are going to not even figure as, in all probability, the accused will be sentenced to be murdered. It will be immoral and it will be ineffective but it will still be done. And on top of the ghastly crimes that were committed by these four on 16 December is going to be added one more, this time committed by the Government of India.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

[NEWS] Company Releases New Phone

Tech company, Apple has released a new phone, making it the 412th phone model released this year.

Some people have liked the new phone, while others haven't. Most people, though, couldn't be bothered enough to give a flying fuck.

The phone comes in  multiple colours and can be used to make voice calls amongst other functions.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why Nationalism is Nothing but a Modern Religion

(First published on NewsYaps)

On a recent train journey, I happened to meet a fellow-traveller who was currently serving in the army as an odd-jobs man (he wasn’t very clear about what he did, but he wasn’t a combatant). Amongst other things, we discussed his experience of being posted at Siachen. As expected, his stay there was less than comfortable. The2003 ceasefire meant that there was peace but the ridiculously inhospitable terrain meant just living there is an ordeal. Of course, Saichen is an odd battlefield where climatic conditions kill more people than actual fighting. And all this over land that is nothing but a desert.
This got me thinking. The fact that nationalism, both Indian and Pakistani, drives men to such incredible lengths for so little is amazing. That these soldiers are ready to lay down their lives for a piece of land that is economically (and in every other way) worthless, is remarkable. And what’s more incredible is the banal acceptance of it all in popular discourse. Common Indians and Pakistanis, as well as the leaders on both sides see nothing grossly distorted in this incident. Such is the power of nationalism.

The only other comparable phenomenon which can drive humans to such lengths, if you think about it, is religion. Of course, that statement is somewhat tautological given that nationalism is nothing but a latter-day religion.

Unlike what proponents of New Atheism  such as Dawkins would have you believe, religion has a core role to fulfil in society as well as the personal lives of people. Most importantly it helps to answer (or at least give the illusion of answering) questions which explain (clichéd as it may sound) the meaning of life, as well as provide a reasoning (often false) as to why luck and chance play such a big, and often detrimental, role in our lives. To quote from Anderson’s seminal work on nationalism, Imagined Communities:

“The extraordinary survival over thousands of years of Buddhism, Christianity or Islam in dozens of different social formations attests to their imaginative response to the overwhelming burden of human suffering—disease, mutilation, grief, age, death....At the same time, in different ways, religious thought also responds to the obscure imitations of immortality, generally by transforming fatality into continuity (karma, original sin etc).”

However, the Enlightenment and the onset of the Age of Reason delegitimised traditional religion across a number of geographies, especially Europe. The questions that religion sought to answer, though, still remained. Into this vacuum steps nationalism, which gives man’s mortality a continuity and purpose, this time not in service of a god, dharma or other such explicitly “religious” concepts, but “for the nation”.

At this stage, it would be good to define religion. This is how Emile Durkheim, founder of sociology, defines it:

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite people into one single moral community

Note that nowhere in this definition is there the presence of a god, which might seem counter-intuitive. God, though, is very much incidental to the concept of a religion and is just one of many “sacred” things that Durkheim talks about. While God is very much present in religions such as Christianity, it’s not so in, say, Buddhism, where concepts such as Dharma/Dhamma, amongst others, fulfil the role of the “sacred”.

One of the most common sacred objects in religions are totems or symbols. Think of the position of the cross in Christianity, the number 786 in South Asian Islam or the letter “Om”  in Hinduism. Correspondingly, nationalism also has its totems, the best example being the national flag. In the Indian context, so sacred was the flag that, till some years back, ordinary people such as you or I couldn’t even fly it, which parallels the sacredness of, say, Sanskrit, which couldn’t be used by the lower castes. Taking this analogy forward, the government acts as a sort of priestly class which would be trusted with the flag, just as Brahmins could be with Sanskrit or the Vedas.

The role of saints and prophets is played by national heroes. If you’ve ever been to Rajghat, Gandhi’s samaadhi, the air of religiosity is difficult to miss and the place is not unlike a shrine or a mazaar. The memory of these heroes is sacred to the point of sparking aggression. Just like the violence by Muslims over cartoon depictions of the Prophet, Shiv Sainiks have a penchant for embarking on destructive rampages whenever their national hero, Shivaji is so much a slighted. The official history of a country functions like the mythos of a religion, helping reinforce its heroes and carefully mark out its “enemies” as well as values. And just as in religious myth, the history of a country is very often “imagined” and often bears little relation with reality. Shivaji, to continue with the earlier example, is examined as an Indian patriot when he most certainly had no idea what a modern concept like patriotism meant. The fact that traders in Surat hated Shivaji for his raids into Gujarat and constantly petitioned Mughal Delhi for protection from him is naturally glossed over in any modern imagining of Shivaji as a pan-Indian hero. Similarly, Pakistan has named its missiles after Afghan king Mahmud of Ghazni, deliberately choosing to forget that the man made his fortune by mostly plundering what is current-day Pakistan. Similarly, William the Conqueror is largely depicted as an English hero, but the fact that he’s a “Conqueror” precisely because he conquered England is often glossed over.

The part of God, in nationalism, is played by the physical land itself which becomes charged with sacredness. Earlier states were rather cavalier about land—Russia, for example, sold Alaska to the US in 1867. Think whether any modern state would be able to sell its land outright now. On the contrary, there are cases where nations have sacrificed hugely in terms of men and money to maintain almost (economically) useless tracts of land. Think of the Falklands War or, of course, our original example, the Siachen Conflict.

Thus, religion more than satisfies Durkheim’s definition of possessing “sacred things”. Now for the “community” that the definition speaks of. Religions like Islam and Christianity have well-defined communities such as the Ummah , Christendom, the Catholic community etc. These communities think of themselves as supreme and medieval writers will talk of the “civilised world” and “Christendom” in the same breath and fire-breathing mullahs will often be found delivering “Ummah FTW!” khutbahs. Given the “natural” supremacy of this community, your identity as a member of the Ummah or Christendom is above all else. To take an Indian example, in his famous poem Jawaab-e-Shikwaa, Iqbal asks sarcastically: “Yun to sayyad bhi ho mirza bhi ho afghaan bhi ho/ tum sabhi kuch ho batao to musalman bhi ho?” (you are a Sayyid, Mirza, Afghan, you are everything but a Muslim), marking “Muslim” out to be the only “true” identity.

In the same vein, a person’s national identity is supposed to supersede all other. You are a Frenchman before all else and, as the burqa ban shows, France has a right to abrogate any other identity of yours. A couple of days back on CNN-IBN, Omar Abdullah cynically defended his government’s role in the Kishtwar riots by pointing out that two Muslims had died as opposed to one Hindu. Rajdeep Sardesai, peremptorily dismissed such logic by pointing out that, “at the end of the day, let us remember, 3 Indians have died.” Mirroring Iqbal’s couplet, which delegitimised “spurious” identities such as “Afghan” or “Mirza” and held up the one true identity, “Muslim”, Sardesai, in turn, pooh-poohed identities such as “Muslim” or “Hindu” and ascribed the one true identity of “Indian” to the victims of Kishtwar.

And just like “sacred objects” and “community”, nationalism mirrors traditional religion in having a common system of beliefs and practices which revolve around the sacred (thus completing the definition of being a religion). The Christmas veneration of Jesus/God, for example, parallels the adulation that the Constitution and Army receive on India’s Republic Day.

Of these, the most amazing is the ritual of sacrifice. To protect the sacred objects that lie at the centre of a nation, every nation must have a military which is willing to lay down its lives. Logically, laying down your life is absurd. There is nothing material that could compensate for your own life. Religions get around this problem by postulating that life on earth is but a small part of total existence and promise a comfortable “afterlife” in exchange for the petty inconvenience of martyrdom—a bargain if there ever was one. Nations do something similar. While they, obviously, do not assure an afterlife, they do guarantee eternity to anyone who lays down their life. Note this popular couplet by Jagdamba Prasad Mishra which promises eternal life to martyrs by enshrining their memory into the collective consciousness of the nation:

Shaheedon ke chitaaon par lagenge har baras mele,
 Watan par mar mitne walo ka bas yahi ab baaqi nishaan hoga

(Literally, “The corpses of martyrs will be the venue for fairs every year; for those who die for the nation, this will be their only legacy”)

Note also that words like “martyr” in English and shaheed in Hindi (both words literally mean “witness”) have been transplanted from Christianity and Islam, respectively, further showing how nationalism has directly borrowed the concept from religion.

And in this ability to generate willing martyrs to defend the community, lies a part of the answer to why both traditional religion as well as nationalism exist. This belief was directed towards one thing and had one aim: society and its maintenance. That is why religion has existed for thousands of years. If it was just a cognitive error or a useless illusion, it would have been eliminated by natural selection over evolutionary time. But the fact that it has existed for all of our recorded history shows  how strong it can be. And the fact that, when challenged with changing circumstances, it can evolve into “modern” forms like nationalism tells us that we're not getting rid of it anytime soon.